Friday, March 12, 2010

Irish Pubs and Irish Bars

There's a difference, of course.

Irish bars, replete with florid lawyers of Irish-American extraction, knuckleheads in turned-around baseball caps, generally bad food and endless midnight choruses of "The Wild Rover," can be outgrown. Irish pubs - increasingly hard to find in American cities or in Ireland, for that matter - provide a different sort of experience, and a more enduring one.

Except on St. Patrick's Day, of course, when they all are equally to be avoided.

The practical matter is that, inevitably, Irish bars and Irish pubs in this country exist in the same space. The quiet late-afternoon-to-early-evening comfort of a shadowy hideaway for a drink, some conversation and maybe a few laughs is often transformed by night into a raucous, bibulous, banjo-rattling gymnasium.

This is probably a minority opinion. Proof that the appeal of the Irish bar extends beyond matters of Celtic heritage is that it is the one species of saloon that keeps growing. Certainly that's the case around Washington D.C., where they are now as common as congressional earmarks.

(In Ireland, pubs are closing at the rate of about one a day, falling victim to recession, smoking bans, drunk driving laws and changes in the Irish lifesyle. Still, no trip to Ireland is complete without a pint in McDaid's, a proper pub off Grafton Street in Dublin, or in a real country pub in Cork or Donegal or the county of your choosing).

In my youth - a phase my wife Jane refers to as "young and stupid" - I worked for a time as bartender in a pair of popular Irish bars in Washington; the Dubliner and Kelly's Irish Times, respectively. That was more than 30 years ago and the fact that both haunts are still pouring whiskey and keeping folks up late at night is testimony enough to their charms.

I worked the very first St. Patrick's Day at the Dubliner on Capitol Hill in 1974 and lived to tell the tale. Danny Coleman, the Dubliner's owner then and now, used to refer to this annual event as the ultimate in "planned hilarity." An honest bartender will tell you that early in a career working March 17 is highly prized, largely for the chance to earn what is generally called "serious money."

A couple of years of puddled green beer, puking coeds and deranged conversation will cure the sensible bartender of that itch.

It's a net plus to see the Irish get some attention, I suppose, but I don't have much good to say about St. Patrick's Day. In my barroom days, after flirting with the St. Paddy's Day tip cup, my idea of a good time was dinner with some friends at a long-gone Indian restaurant in Georgetown called Apana. Then, straight home.

In a decade as a single man living in Chicago, my loyalty to Butch McGuire's saloon on Division St. earned me access to the VIP back door in the alley on March 17, though I don't believe I ever afforded myself the opportunity.

At its best, the lure of the Irish saloon 364 days a year is all about pursuit of what is known in Ireland as "the craic."

The concept is both simple and often debated. And the pronunciation is "crack." It is time spent away from the stressful and the unpleasant, from the rigors of real life and work and money and sometimes family and often responsibility.

"The craic" can be quiet or noisy, played out in a small group or a large one, fueled by grand doses of adult beverage, or not so much.

Fun, for want of a more literary term.

"The craic was mighty," you could hear a fellow say in Ireland. If you were there, you know exactly what he means.